New Order: Sections, Statistics And Sequencing A Collection

There are good things and bad things about being an author who works in more than one format. On the downside, it takes longer to get any individual project finished. But on the upside, when I’m feeling blocked on one piece of writing, I can always work on another.

This past week, having temporarily worn myself out on my novel revisions, I’ve been doing some more work on the poetry collection I’m putting together, which I’m calling Men Briefly Explained.

The sticking point, which it’s taken me quite a while to resolve, is what order to put the poems in, and how (if at all) to divide them into sections. There may well be well-organised people out there who work out the order of their poetry collections, or short story collections, before they sit down to write a word – and I’d be interested to hear if you’re one of them – but for me, the idea for a collection emerges from looking at what poetry I’ve been writing and what I think I’d like to focus on writing next.

I’m looking for two, partially contradictory, things when sequencing a poetry collection: a flow from one poem to the next, and some division points which allow poems with similarities to be grouped together. If possible, I like the overall shape of the collection to have some kind of arc, to suggest a narrative.

My original idea was to divide the manuscript into four sections (and, off the record and on a strictly “need to know” basis, these were I: Men In The Wild; II: Men in Love; III: Men Under Construction; IV: Men Overboard). But the more I looked at this division, the more unsatisfied I felt. Where was the flow, where was the arc?

So, after a lot of hemming and hawing over the section titles, I decided to start from scratch and re-sequence the whole thing, on the entirely unscientific basis of which poems felt like they belonged early, middle, and late in the collection. Within these, divisions emerged, rather like the points of a compass rose, so that poems acquired designations such as “early middle” and the even more problematic “early late”. Then, put them all together, et voilà! A reordered poetry collection.

Now the love poems are up the front, followed by the “growing up” poems. The wild men, and indeed a number of the tame men, cluster around the middle of the collection, while the late period charts the long decline towards senescence, with occasional excursions to Haast. (I may still move the excursions to Haast.)

There’s still plenty of work to do. Some of the poems, especially those previously published in literary magazines, are finished – I think; some are fairly stable, but still need some tidying up; while others are rough drafts with encouraging little notes to myself like “more stanazas here!” This instruction should probably be removed from the final version.

When it comes to the age of the poems, there’s a bimodal distribution – almost half of them are three or more years old, and have had a fair crack at being submitted to literary magazines, while most of the other half have been written within the last few months. The poems in this latter half deserve their chance at individual glory too.

Somewhere down the track, I have a third short story collection in mind. Daringly, I’ve already come up with the theme and most of the story titles, if not the order. Whether this will encourage me to actually write the stories remains, as yet, unknown.

Extreme Weather Events, my first short story collection

Extreme Weather Events was my first short story collection. It was published in 2001 by HeadworX, as part of their now-discontinued Pocket Fiction Series. There are twelve stories in Extreme Weather Events:

Maria and the Tree
Wintering Over
The New Land
The Kiwi Contingent
My Friend the Volcano
The Pole
The Lizard
Tour Party, Late Afternoon
Black Box
The Man Who Loved Maps
The Temple in the Matrix

To introduce a few, “Wintering Over” is set in Antarctica, where an isolated scientific party has an unusual visitor from the past: Titus Oates, that very gallant colleague of Captain Scott who went for a walk, and proved to be quite some time indeed. “The Pole”, also set in Antarctica, rewrites the struggle to be first to the South Pole. “Black Box” sees strange developments on the Wellington skyline, while “My Friend the Volcano” blows her top in Taranaki.

“Flensing” and “The Lizard” are pretty much the only two horror stories I’ve ever written. “Flensing” is set in South Georgia, which gives it a slight edge, I think. And “The Temple in the Matrix” pokes a few toes into the interstitial pond in a Bill-Gibson-meets-HP-Lovecraft-uptown kind of way.

The book got some good reviews and I still come across satisfyingly dog-eared copies in public libraries. If you’d like a copy, you can order it from me for $5 plus postage & packing (in NZ, p&p will be $2, making a grand total of $7 for the book. I’ll need to work out the postage & packing for other territories). Please send an email to saying you’d like a copy, and we’ll take it from there.

Transported Interview Podcast Available

My ten minute interview with Ruth Todd of Plains FM in Christchurch is now available online as a podcast. It can be played online or downloaded as an MP3 file.

Ruth and I talk about:

  • my short story collection Transported
    (which you can buy online through Fishpond or New Zealand Books Abroad, among others, or in person at an increasing range of bookstores)
  • why some ideas turn into poems and others into short stories
  • the benefits of diversity in a short story collection
  • my disastrous attempt to impress a woman [you know who you are!] with my Russian accent when it turned out that her boyfriend spoke the language fluently
  • the educational benefits of the Intermediate Section of the Invercargill Public Library
  • being the child of assisted immigrants
  • writing a short story about literary funding (come in, “Said Sheree”)
  • acceptance and rejection from both the writer’s and the editor’s point of view
  • The Frank O’Connor Award longlisting for Transported.

The interview was a lot of fun to take part in. I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Transported: 2 days to go – Getting Around

A lot of people, a lot of places, but what the stories in Transported have in common is that they all feature journeys of some sort – journeys ranging from a few hundred steps to many light years. Actually, all the stories in my first collection, Extreme Weather Events, include journeys as well. Could there be a theme emerging here?

The term “Transported” shouldn’t be interpreted in purely physical terms – some of the characters are transported by love, others by envy, fear or greed – but in the book, characters:

travel by ferry
travel by jetboat
travel by tractor
run up and down the pitch
move house
take the train (to Lower Hutt; to the Finland Station)
fly into space
fly through space
fall in the pond
set the matter transmitter for the banks of the Dnieper
drive back home from kids’ cricket
run the 100 metres in the school sports
run for their lives
set sail surreptitiously
drive a bulldozer
drive a Lotus 49T
fly in a plane
soar aloft on their pinions
plunge to earth
walk with a limp
dance (fast)
dance (slow)
drift in a dinghy
sail in a yacht
go out for a few quiets
climb to the top of the mountain
climb the walls
climb trees
jump in the water
wade in the sea
go under
hop to it, and
walk some more

No bikes, eh? Must try harder next time.

Transported: 5 days to go – Opening Paragraphs

Transported, my second short story collection, is published this coming Friday, the 6th of June. To whet your appetite, here are the opening paragraphs of five stories from the collection.

When She Came Walking

The first time she walked down our street, pots jumped off stoves, coal leapt from scuttles, wood went rat-a-tat-tatting down hallways. In our yard, a broom and spade got up and lurched around like drunks, trying to decide which way she’d gone.

The New Neighbours

High property values are the hallmark of a civilised society. Though our generation may never build cathedrals nor find a cure for cancer, may never save the whales nor end world hunger, yet we can die with smiles on our faces if we have left our homes better than we found them, if we have added decks, remodelled kitchens, and created indoor-outdoor flow.

Robinson in Love

Lisa gave Robinson a knife, a bowl, a chopping board, and three tomatoes. Later, she gave him lettuce, cucumber, and carrots. By the time he’d run out of ingredients, he had made a salad, and Lisa had cleared the table, split bread rolls, and set out slices of camembert and little pottles of dips and spreads. Robinson would have settled for Marmite.

The Wadestown Shore

I cut the engine in the shadow of the motorway pillars and let the dinghy drift in to the Wadestown shore. The quiet of late afternoon was broken only by the squawking of parakeets. After locking the boat away in the old garage I now used as a boatshed, I stood for a moment to soak in the view. The setting sun was winking off the windows of drowned office blocks. To the left lay Miramar Island, and beyond it the open sea.

Books in the Trees

As soon as I understood what a book was, I resolved to become a bookkeeper. To the dismay of my parents, I was forever climbing trees in hopes of catching an unwary volume. Of course, I never did; they were far above me, flapping unmolested from branch to branch.

How It Came To Pass: Transported

I posted earlier about the origins of my Earthdawn novel, Anarya’s Secret. That started with a call from a RedBrick staff member who’d seen some of the writing linked from my website and thought I might be the person to write an Earthdawn novel for them.

The origins of Transported are a little similar, but more convoluted. In early 2007, I got an email message from Fiona Farrell, appointed to edit Random House New Zealand’s Best New Zealand Fiction 4 anthology, to say that she had seen my story A Short History of the 20th Century, With Fries online in Flashquake and enjoyed it. Did I have any stories in the 3000-5000 word range, previously unpublished in book form, that I’d like to submit for BNZF4? I thought this offer over for 1.2 seconds, said I did, and submitted four stories, from which Fiona Farrell chose “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev!” for the anthology.

That was rather nice. Striking while the iron was hot while not letting the grass grow under my feet, I mentioned to Harriet Allan of Random House that I was putting together the manuscript of my second collection of short stories (following 2001’s Extreme Weather Events), and would she be interested in seeing it? She replied that she would. After we did some reordering and I added a couple of new stories, the deal was sealed, and my second short story collection, Transported, came into being. With the aid of excellent editor Claire Gummer, the manuscript was kneaded into shape

Transported Cover

I recently learned that Transported will be published on the 6th of June, and there’s preliminary publicity up on the Random House NZ website. This is my first book to be published by a major publisher. Before the process started, I had a little trepidation about it – would I be chewed up and spat out by the giant corporate machine? So far, however, everyone at Random House has been an absolute pleasure to deal with, and I’m looking forward with no little excitement to launch day and beyond. I’ll keep you posted!